Colorado River Water Conserv. Dist. v. United States,
424 U.S. 800 (1976)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Colorado River Water Conserv. Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976)

Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States

No. 74-940

Argued January 14, 1976

Decided March 24, 1976*

424 U.S. 800


In order to manage the allocation of water and to resolve conflicting claims thereto, Colorado enacted legislation under which the State is divided into seven Water Divisions, in each of which a procedure is established for the settlement of water claims on a continuous basis. A State Engineer is charged with responsibility for administering the distribution of state waters. Seeking adjudication of reserved rights claimed on behalf of itself and certain Indian tribes, as well as rights based on state law, in waters in certain rivers in Division 7, the United States, which had previously asserted non-Indian reserved water rights in three other State Water Divisions, brought this suit against some l,000 water users in the District Court. The Government invoked District Court jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1345. Shortly thereafter, one of the federal suit defendants sought in the state court for Division 7 to make the Government a party to proceedings in that Division for the purpose of there adjudicating all the Government's claims, both state and federal, pursuant to the McCarran Amendment, 43 U.S.C. § 666. That law provides for consent to join the United States in any suit (1) for the adjudication of water rights, or (2) the administration of such rights, where it appears that the United States owns or is acquiring such rights by appropriation under state law or otherwise. The District Court, on abstention grounds, granted a motion to dismiss the Government's suit. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that jurisdiction for that suit existed under 28 U.S.C. § 1345, and that abstention was inappropriate.


l. The McCarran Amendment, as is clear from its language and legislative history, did not divest the District Court of jurisdiction over this litigation under § 1345. The effect of the Amendment is to give consent to state jurisdiction concurrent with federal jurisdiction over controversies involving federal water rights. Pp. 424 U. S. 806-809.

Page 424 U. S. 801

2. That Amendment includes consent to determine in state court reserved water rights held on behalf of Indians, see United States v. District Court for Eagle County, 401 U. S. 520, and United States v. District Court for Water Div. 5, 401 U. S. 527, and the exercise of state jurisdiction does not imperil those rights or breach the Government's special obligation to protect the Indians. Pp. 424 U. S. 809-813.

3. The abstention doctrine is confined to three categories of cases, none of which applies to the litigation at bar; hence the District Court's dismissal on the basis of abstention was inappropriate. Pp. 424 U. S. 813-817.

4. Several factors, however, are present in this litigation that counsel against exercise of concurrent federal jurisdiction, clearly supporting dismissal of the Government's action and resolution of its water right claims in the state court proceedings. Pp. 424 U. S. 817-820.

(a) Most significantly, such dismissal furthers the policy of the McCarran Amendment recognizing the desirability of unified adjudication of water rights and the availability of state systems like the one in Colorado for such adjudication and management of rights to use the State's waters. The Colorado legislation established a continuous proceeding for adjudicating water rights that antedated the Government's suit and reached "all claims, perhaps month by month, but inclusively in the totality," United States v. District Court for Water Div. 5, supra, at 401 U. S. 529. Pp. 424 U. S. 819-820.

(b) Other significant factors include (1) the apparent absence before dismissal of any District Court proceedings other than the filing of the complaint; (2) the extensive involvement of state water rights occasioned by this suit against 1,000 defendants; (3) the distance between the federal court and Division 7; and (4) the Government's existing participation in proceedings in three other Divisions. P. 424 U. S. 820.

504 F.2d 115, reversed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 424 U. S. 821. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 424 U. S. 826.

Page 424 U. S. 802

Primary Holding

The interests of effective judicial administration may lead a federal court to reject taking jurisdiction in a case where a concurrent state proceeding has started to unfold.


The Colorado River Water Conservation District pursued a declaration of its right to waters in certain rivers and their tributaries in Division 7, which was one of the divisions into which Colorado was divided for water allocation purposes. The District asserted claims under state and federal laws as well as those of certain Indian tribes. The government had pursued the adjudication of non-Indian reserved rights and state law claims in state courts for three other Divisions in Colorado, and it still played an active role in them. 28 U.S.C. Section 1345 provided the basis for federal jurisdiction in this case, based on the principle that federal courts have original jurisdiction over all civil actions brought by the federal government unless Congress provides otherwise. The McCarran Amendment, however, permits the federal government to be joined in certain actions involving water rights, and some of the defendants claimed that this law removed jurisdiction from the court to determine federal water rights. The lower court dismissed the government's action, but the intermediate appellate court reversed.



  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

Federal courts may hear this case under Section 1345, notwithstanding the McCarran Amendment. The principle of abstention does not apply in this instance, and it should be exercised only narrowly. Dismissal was justified, however, when taking into account the combination of several factors, including the McCarran Amendment and the policy that it supports of making state courts available to adjudicate water rights in order to prevent the piecemeal adjudication of these rights. While the McCarran Amendment does not provide an independently sufficient reason to refrain from hearing this case, it could be a factor that the lower court properly considered in dismissing it.


  • Potter Stewart (Author)
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • John Paul Stevens

The main reason to avoid hearing this case in federal court is to avoid the piecemeal adjudication of water rights, so it is essentially a pragmatic decision. However, that interest will not be served by transferring litigation from federal to state courts, and a federal court is more capable than a state court of properly resolving a dispute arising from federal law.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

The judgment of the intermediate appellate court should have received greater deference, and this result creates a bizarre anomaly. The Supreme Court should not have reevaluated all of the factors for justifying dismissal but accepted the judgment of the lower court.

Case Commentary

This decision may not have changed the scope of federal jurisdiction as much as it appeared at that time, since in practice courts already had widely engaged in the practice of staying federal proceedings when state proceedings were underway. The language of the Court in fact suggested that these stays should not be issued as willingly as they had.

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